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Remembering Nicholas Bett, a trailblazer in African Athletics

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By Yemi Olus

On Wednesday morning, the sad news filtered in that Kenya’s Nicholas Bett, who won a Gold medal in the 400m Hurdles at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, died in a car crash that morning. It was reported that Bett died on the spot after the car he was driving veered off the road and landed in a ditch near Lessos, along Eldoret-Kapsabet road, throwing the Athletics fraternity into mourning.

Nicholas Bett

This happened barely two days after his return from the 21st edition of the African Athletics Championships in Asaba, Nigeria, where Kenya had topped the medals table with 11 Gold, six Silver and two Bronze medals, waiting until the last day of the competition to win six Gold medals, thus overtaking South Africa and hosts Nigeria on the medals table.

South Africa took home the most medals with a tally of 30 medals – nine Gold, 13 Silver and eight Bronze while.Nigeria won a total of 19 medals, with nine Gold, five Silver and five Bronze medals, to finish 3rd on the medals table.

The Kenyans won most of their specialist events: the men and women’s 3,000m Steeplechase, men and women’s 1500m, men and women’s 5000m, men’s 20km walk, women’s 10,000m and men’s Javelin throw.

However, they also won a couple of events that were not considered their areas of strength. One was the men’s High Jump, which Matthew Sawe won, retaining the title he claimed in Durban two years ago. In June of this year, the 29-year-old cleared a height of 2.30m to win the Kenyan National Championships and set a new National Record, breaking his previous mark of 2.25m set in 2015.

Another event Kenya won in Asaba, was the men’s 4x400m, and I must admit that I didn’t see that victory coming. It was expected that Botswana was going to retain the title they had won in Durban two years ago, but one of their key runners, Nijel Amos, who won the men’s 800m in Asaba, pulled a hamstring during the race, putting paid Botswana’s chances at winning a medal.

However, in retrospect, I wonder if Botswana would have been able to beat Kenya had they completed that race, because the Kenyans produced a solid team that had Emmanuel Korir run a scorching anchor leg to give the East Africans the Gold medal in the 4x400m in a time of 3:00.92. South Africa took Silver in 3:03.50, while Nigeria settled for Bronze with a time of 3:04.88.

It is also pertinent to note that the East African nation won Silver in the women’s 4x400m, and Bronze in the women’s 4x100m, underlining their emergence in the events that were hitherto not regarded as their strong areas, such as the sprints and the Field events.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Bett finished 8th in the 400m Hurdles. He finished in the same position in the final of his race in Asaba, having first placed 2nd in his heat. However he got injured during the heats and did not compete in the 4x400m for Kenya. His twin brother Aron Koech finished 4th in the 400m Hurdles in Asaba, and was a member of Kenya’s 4x400m Gold-winning team.

Having endured an injury-plagued2017 season, Bett was returning to form in 2018, recording a Season’s Best (SB) of 48.88secs, before succumbing to injury once again in Asaba.

The late 28-year-old came to the limelight after emerging the surprise winner of the men’s 400m Hurdles at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, making him only the second African man to win the event at the World Championships 27 years after Zambia’s Samuel Matete became the first African to achieve that feat at the 1991 edition of the championships where he set a then World Lead of 47.64secs. Matete’s African Record of 47.10secs in the 400m Hurdles still stands.

Bett, who was drawn in Lane 8, raced to a World Lead and National Record of 47.79secs to upstage the favourites. Interestingly, Kenya topped the medals table at the 2015 World Championships, finishing ahead of USA for the first time in history, as well as Jamaica. At that same championships, Kenya got another surprise Gold in the men’s Javelin throw, also a first for the East African nation in World Championships history.

Considering their historical feats in Beijing, it is not out of place to refer to the likes of Bett and Yego as trailblazers in Kenyan and African Athletics as a whole. And so Bett’s recent death is a bitter pill to swallow, because he had become one of continent’s emerging forces in Track and Field.

Athletics South Africa (ASA) President Aleck Aleck Skhosana’s tribute best captures my sentiments. Part of his statement goes thus: “It is a big blow to African athletics, to Kenya and the world. In particular, we had expected him to grow to become one of the best in the coaching of 400m athletes in benefit of Kenyan and all athletes in the continent and beyond upon retirement.

“We remember him also for winning the Bronze medals at the African championships in 2014 in the 400m Hurdles and 4x400m Relay. We express our deepest condolences to his twin brother Aron, the Bett family, Athletics Kenya and the rest of the nation for this tragic and unexpected loss.” Rest in peace Trailblazer!

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